★★☆☆☆Over ten years since he journeyed deep into J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy world with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson makes his inevitable return to Middle-earth with the first of a new three-parter: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012). Taking the reins from original helmer Guillermo Del Toro, Jackson takes the source material - itself a prelude to TLotR - and burrows further into the templates he so vividly brought to life three times previously, fleshing out the established geography and characters whilst retrospectively exploring Bilbo Baggins' adventures pre-The Fellowship of the Ring.
In a faultless piece of casting, Martin Freeman stars as the stringently housebroken Baggins who, 60 years before the timeline of the original trilogy, enjoys nothing more than enjoying the humble means of his beloved Shire. A peaceful life is quickly ruptured, however, when the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) tasks him with joining an all-singing, all-consuming band of dwarves - thirteen in total - on their mission to reclaim the mountain kingdom of Erebor and its accompanying gold from the villainous dragon Smaug, who left them and their kin in ruin.
TLotR so memorable - namely, the lavish set design, bountiful visuals and Howard Shore score - An Unexpected Journey is a suitable and authentically assembled return to both Tolkien's literary world and Jackson's treatment of it, but it fails to shake off an air of insubstantiality; of a desperation to rekindle a winning formulae. In remaining meticulously faithful to the original volume, whilst simultaneously weaving in material from the accompanying appendices, Jackson makes an admirable but tediously bloated play at creating a worthwhile prelude to the more recognised story, robbing the narrative of the sprightliness conveyed in the source text.
Scrupulously following the same structural template as TLotR - a quest blighted by constant clashes with the combatant races at play in this fictional universe - An Unexpected Journey serves merely as a basic introduction to what will hopefully be two tighter successors; one that incessantly pauses for spectacle to pad out a demanding 169-minute runtime. Sequences depicting battles with laughable cockney trolls, warring stone giants and a run-in with Gollum (a mocap Andy Serkis, in the film's standout scene) distract from an ostensibly lighter tale of derring-do and camaraderie, as well as Bilbo's integral discovery of the One Ring.
It is, of course, hugely challenging to overcome the episodic nature of Tolkien's original prose, yet in elongating the tale, Jackson has created a rigid and monotonous first part of a prologue to a far superior and engaging story. Thus, An Unexpected Journey gets off to a rocky start - here's hoping for a marked improvement by the time middle film The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and climactic finale There and Back Again (2014) lumber into UK cinemas.
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